I don’t have a nose for satire. I miss the cues. I mistook X J Kennedy’s satirical poem Nude Descending a Staircase for an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s eponymous painting, when in fact Kennedy was “taking the piss” (a gesture Duchamp would have understood).
At first I couldn’t fathom, given my satire deficiency, what led Shostakovich to choose Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose as the subject for an opera. After all, the story concerns a petty bureaucrat who wakes up one morning to find his nose missing and spends the rest of the story chasing it down. But on learning more about the tenor of the times, even I couldn’t miss that Gogol’s blend of humor and humanism was right on the nose (so to speak). As Shostakovich wrote of both Gogol and Nikolai Leskov, “Their heroes make it possible to laugh uproariously and to cry bitter tears.” [Fay 970]
Gogol was one of Shostakovich’s favorite authors. He could quote whole swaths of it from memory, as in this wartime reminiscence of Shostakovich talking about a scene from Dead Souls:
“He ordered that the washing utensils be brought up to him, and for an excessively long time he scrubbed both his cheeks with soap, inflating them from inside his mouth with his tongue; then taking the towel from the shoulders of the inn servant, he dried his fleshy face on all sides, starting from behind his ears, snorting first a couple of times in the servant’s face.” Can you imagine this scene? Here I would use a bassoon, trumpet and drum. Then when he puts on his shirt-front, “having plucked two hairs from his nose”, I’d use the piccolo—“and naturally found himself wearing a dress-coat the colour of whortle-berries shot with shiny lights.” [Wilson 193]
So what was a poor composer to do when his first commission came from the—surely wholly lacking in irony—Propaganda Division of the State Publishers’ Music Section to compose a symphony “in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Revolution”? [Fay 582] Not only that, but the Second Symphony’s final movement involved setting text Shostakovich found “repulsive.” [Fay 589] Shostakovich’s Third Symphony wasn’t commissioned, but also gave a nod to revolutionary intent as part “of a projected cycle of symphonic compositions dedicated to the revolutionary calendar.” [Fay 753]
Shostakovich is reputed to have said that his Second and Third Symphonies were “completely unsatisfactory.” I’m unable to confirm the quotation, but his admonition to Rostropovich that “should he record the symphonies, ‘please start with the Fourth’!” [Wilson 529], is to the same effect.
Richard Whitehouse made the observation in his liner notes to the Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Naxos CDs that “[t]he Second and Third represent a reckless accommodation between modernist means and revolutionary ends.” Certainly the balance between what Shostakovich wanted to compose and what the State would sanction was precarious. I wonder if even Gogol could have bridged the gap.
Prufrockian Impressions: I didn’t intend to listen to these symphonies, nor did David Nice include them in his suggested list. In the end, I couldn’t resist discovering what Shostakovich’s “not-so-good” sounded like, as well as his “best.” I heard interesting ideas in each symphony, but I didn’t find the pieces compelling listening as a whole. I think of them as pieces from the creative laboratory, experiments that, while they might not work in themselves, spin out ideas that could bear fruit in later works. For that reason alone, I’m glad good recordings exist for the historical record, even if I’m unlikely to return to them.
A listening list on Spotify may be found here.
Second Symphony (“To October”) (1927) (For the curious, the choral movement starts at 12:55; its text may be found, in Russian and English, here. If nothing else can be said of it, Shostakovich certainly got even with the bombast of the text.)
The chorus is ushered in by the sound of a factory whistle. The Russian Revolution was associated from the first with turning an agrarian, Russian society into an industrial one, so the factory whistle was a powerful symbol. Shostakovich actually wrote parts for several factory whistles of different pitches and loudnesses, but, recognizing that factory whistles aren’t always ready to hand, he also wrote the factory-whistle notes into the wind instrument parts as a substitute.
The quotation is from Howard Posner’s excellent article in the LA Philharmonic database about the Second and Third Symphonies and the tenor of the times in which they were composed, which may be found here.
Third Symphony (First of May) (1929; first performance 1930)
Shostakovich told fellow composer and good friend Vissarion Shebalin “that he was intrigued by the notion of a symphony in which not a single theme is repeated.” [Fay 760] The composition succeeds in that mission, but not, to my mind, as an enduring work.
The Polka, “a satirical vignette of Western bourgeois prattle about disarmament and world peace entitled “Once Upon a Time in Geneva . . . (Angel of the World),” from Act III of the ballet) became one of the composer’s most recognized gems in his own transcription for piano . . .”. [Fay 910]
The Percussion Interlude from The Nose (1927-1928)
I’ve posted the Interlude previously, but this video from Florida State University is great, as you can see the percussionists perform the work.
Credits: The quotations from Wilson and Fay may be found here and here. The “completely unsatisfactory” quotation is cited as from here, but as my copy of the book never arrived, I can’t confirm. The remaining quotations are from the sources indicated in the text. The reproduction of “Bolshevik,” by Boris Kustodiev, may be found here. Kustodiev also painted the young Shostakovich. The portrait may be found here.